Monday, November 29, 2021

EL City Council grants mayor power to limit public gatherings, discusses COVID-19 response

July 8, 2020
Newly elected Mayor Ruth Beier answers questions from the public at a Q&A hosted at 54B District Court on Dec. 3, 2019.
Newly elected Mayor Ruth Beier answers questions from the public at a Q&A hosted at 54B District Court on Dec. 3, 2019. —
Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

East Lansing City Council passed Ordinance 1488 on June 30, granting the Mayor the power to limit public gatherings in the event of a state of emergency. Among discussions, the council invited community members from local restaurants, the health department, MSU and city staff to discuss how to keep businesses running and health a priority as students return to campus in the midst of a pandemic.

According to the ordinance, under the declaration of a city state of emergency, the mayor has the ability to limit the size and location of gatherings on public property; close streets, alleys, parks or other public places; regulate and/or prohibit pedestrian traffic, including the formation of lines on public streets; and regulate entry into city buildings and structures.

This comes following a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases linked to Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing, Michigan. As of Monday, the Ingham County Health Department reports 170 cases linked to the establishment. 

Knowingly violating an order, rule or regulation in place by the mayor under this ordinance may be punishable by a civil infraction of up to $25. The proposed draft of the ordinance initially called for a misdemeanor penalty punishable by 90 days in jail or a fine of up to $500, though council unanimously voted to move away from such punishment.

While Mayor Ruth Beier, Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens and Council Member Jessy Gregg voted to move ahead with Ordinance 1488, Council Member Lisa Babcock was the sole opposition to the motion. Babcock said the proposed ordinance gives too much power on too short of a notice, is over-broad and under-written.

“This is a good draft, but I do not think this is a reasonable piece of law,” Babcock said. “I think it drops a lot of power with very vague terms, and I cannot support this.”

Gregg agreed the ordinance grants a broad level of authority but that it is necessary to allow the city to take actions that have not proven legally enforceable so far.

“We have been frustrated for the last three months by not having that breadth of authority,” Gregg said. 

At the June 23 City Council meeting, council members discussed the extent of their powers in enforcing social distancing. City Attorney Tom Yeadon said most of the power lies with the governor, the local health officer, the city prosecutor and the attorney general’s office. At that point, the city had no power outside of declaring a local state of emergency.

“I don’t want power,” Beier said. “I want people not to get sick.”

Any rules or regulations put into place under Ordinance 1488 must be publicized in a prominent place on the city website as well as through press releases and publication in a newspaper circulated within the city.

Stephens said he would like to see a requirement on the city to also post signage throughout the downtown area informing the public of the rules in place.

Discussion arises around COVID-19 response in local bars and restaurants

Tom “Dewey” Bramson, operator of The Riv, Rick’s, Beggar’s Banquet, Harrison Roadhouse and Roadhouse Pub joined the meeting alongside Crunchy’s owner Michael Krueger to discuss actions taken by local bars and restaurants as members of the Responsible Hospitality Council, or RHC.

The RHC was founded in East Lansing in 1998 by a group of restaurateurs to encourage the responsible promotion and service of alcohol to the East Lansing community, according to the city website.

Bramson said by a unanimous vote, members adopted an amendment to their best management practices stating that masks must be required upon entry to any establishment in order to stay a member in good standing with the RHC.

Though it comprises a large majority, Krueger said not every bar and restaurant in the city has a membership with the RHC. As a result, these guidelines would not impact them.

Among efforts, Bramson said they are working to adopt a “no mask, no service” policy and are looking into options to run a virtual line for their establishments. 

“After 34 years (of running bars and restaurants), I’ve been very accustomed feeling like I know what I’m up against moving forward, and for the first time in a very long time, I have no idea,” Bramson said.

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Bramson said the goal once students return to campus is that in working together with the city, students will realize when they start walking that they better have a mask in their pocket before reaching downtown. 

At Crunchy’s, Krueger said there have been a few circumstances where they have had to ask customers to leave for refusing to wear a mask away from their table. He said they have likewise refused service to customers, including a few families, who have refused to wear a mask to enter.

With East Lansing now being in the national spotlight, Krueger said business has gone down over the last week.

“We have this stigma attached to East Lansing right now,” Krueger said. “I’m not saying it’s not fair to some extent. I’m not saying that there aren’t concerns out there. I just want to make sure we’re doing everything that we can to make sure that the businesses are being promoted in a positive way.”

While discussions continue to center around controlling lines, Bramson said his concern for the fall is tailgating. If the stadiums restrict attendance and the university does not restrict tailgating by the same amount, everyone will rush to East Lansing businesses. While they may be able to train MSU students that are accustomed to the area to use apps to get in virtual lines and follow specific guidelines, he said the visitors that come from cities across the state will have no idea the rules that are in place.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail expressed to the council that businesses have the power to enforce the executive orders related to mask wearing and social distancing. The best enforcement power, she suggested, is for all businesses to present a united front and to deny entry to those without a mask.

Vail said she visited Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub on June 18 when they were notified of two cases connected to the establishment. At that time, she met with the owners and expressed to them their 225-person capacity was too large. She said they needed to enforce mask wearing and to break people apart when they leave their tables, warning them that continuing things the way they were would result in them either closing down or leading all the bars and restaurants to close once again.

Harper’s was closed two days later on June 20. Vail told the owners they must submit a plan outlining the changes being made and that they cannot reopen until the health department allows. 

MSU takes initial steps in creating a safe environment

MSU’s University Physician David Weismantel addressed City Council, informing them of the university’s plans to tackle enforcement on campus with 50,000 students. 

At the June 26 Board of Trustees meeting, MSU announced a policy requiring masks to be worn on campus, both indoors and outdoors. Weismantel said the goal would be to create a seamless border between the university and the city where the expectation of mask wearing is universal.

“This isn’t going to be the environment that our students experienced last fall,” Weismantel said. “It will be entirely different.”

Lecture halls that previously held 400 students, he said, now may hold up to 60. The largest class sizes may be 70 people, though almost all of the large lectures will be held online.

All students will be required to sign a “health compact” agreeing they will follow rules in place for face coverings, social distancing and hygiene. Faculty and staff members will be expected to adhere to the same guidelines.

To enforce these guidelines, Weismantel said student ambassadors will likely be placed around campus to encourage people to wear masks and socially distance, especially in the indoor areas. Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez said this could be an opportunity for the city to partner with the university by similarly utilizing ambassadors to create enforcement in the downtown area. 

Weismantel said the one good thing about Harper’s reopening when it did is that it happened when there were very few students around.

“It’s the sort of thing that could make us think about just turning the bus around,” Weismantel said. “If we had that many more people then going back to residence halls and really living in those environments, we might have a very difficult time testing and tracing our way through that particular situation.”

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